Nestled within a massed array of administrative buildings and banks in the City of London is the so-called “new monastic” church of St Mary Aldermary. Early before work, instead of going to the gym or shuffling into Pret A Manger, a growing number of City employees enjoy early silent prayer, intercessions and Taizé chants. A CD player simulates the calm of monasteries – piercing birdsong, slow-tolling church bells, the rustling of cattle.
Such is an example of “new monasticism”, a “fresh expressions” movement in the Church of England. A few churches in London have been turned over to the new monastics, where they adopt an unorthodox ministry of cultivating contemplative prayer and Benedictine spirituality – for example, praying at the start of the working day, thanking God and expressing penance as the working day ends – within parish work.
Moot, the community which runs St Mary Aldermary, has even codified a “rhythm of life”. There is a café – the kind of place you’d just stumble into, which Keira, the elected churchwarden, tells me is “deliberately over-staffed because we want it to be hospitable”. This addresses the spiritual needs of the parish – the City of London has everything, yet its frenetic commuters grapple daily with the gap at the heart of secular society. However, they are less sure about a coherent theology underpinning the new movement.
This is because “new monasticism” is a strange new term: it was imported from America, where it was probably first expounded in Shane Claiborne’s book The Irresistible Revolution. Claiborne is an Evangelical: he values monasticism as a means of establishing communities “marked by interdependence and sacrificial love”. Claiborne founded a movement of such communities: the Simple Way movement. One of these centres, Rutba House, even codified its own monastic rule.
Yet while Claiborne is sure that new communities of structured prayer will reinvigorate the spirit of Christianity, he distrusts asceticism and mysticism, contradicting our Catholic understanding of monasticism as the renouncement of pleasures to realise only the greater pleasure of God.
The movement differs in Britain. Here, it is an extension of the Oxford Movement and linked to Anglo-Catholicism, with several epicentres in London. At St Luke’s in Peckham, the formula of Benedictine spirituality is being experimented with for parish work. Ian Mobsby of the Wellsprings Community, who helped set up Moot, wants to cultivate a contemplative and hospitable Anglican place of worship with daily prayer. Yet the challenge here is even harder than in the City.
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